The Wishing Imperative
It was this practice that Gildas railed against in his diatribe on his fellow countrymen, and which neither he nor his Church could eliminate. Gradually it became adopted into an accepted, if somewhat quaint, practice, bastardised from the original act to a minor superstition. One of the things which can be noted from a study of the deposits at Carrawburgh is that the vast majority of the coins were of low denomination. This indicates that the value of the offering bore little relationship to the nature of the request. It was enough to offer something of symbolic, rather than genuine value, and in a similar sense other wishing wells have been used as receptacles for buttons, pins, brooches etc. At each of these places something was sought, and something was offered. Something gained and something remained. We also frequently see items of clothing tied to nearby bushes or trees, symbolising the illness or ailment the petitioner hoped to divest themselves of – this may be the origin of the practice of well dressing, which will be examined in the next article.
Nowadays, of course, people have long since forgotten why the practice is maintained, why they are seemingly compelled but some atavistic urge to offer items of small value to water. Even to the garish electric pull of an artificial stream in a miniature village sitting in the middle of a brightly lit gift shop. It is therefore with some confidence that we can assert that, contrary to the idea that all supposed pagan practices can be traced no further than the Victorians or later (who were perhaps fearful, in their rush to industry and urbanisation, of losing contact with their rural antecedents), the practice of the sacred well likely has its origin in the formalisation of our earliest spiritual needs, and quite possibly was associated with the coming of agriculture, domestication and settled communities.
As a final, and somewhat comforting thought to those who decry the loss of such places of sanctity – rather ironically, and no doubt to his eternal chagrin, Gildas himself has a sacred spring named after him at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Brittany, where pilgrims no doubt continue to make offerings to the tutelary deity under the guise of that grumpiest of clerics.
Allason-Jones, Lindsay 1985 Coventina’s Well, Oxbow Books, Oxford
Bord, Janet and Bord, Colin, 1986 ‘Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland’ Paladin, London
Hutton, Ronald 1996 Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain OUP, Oxford
Pearson, Paul and Harrill, Tallis 2017 The Mountain and the Stream: Rural Animism and Pagan Practices Windgather Publishing, Derbyshire